Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the CDC, the World Health Organization, and every hospital in America is telling us to use hand sanitizers whenever we cannot wash our hands properly, wear face masks in public, and wear gloves when shopping. You cannot enter a medical facility or many businesses and retail establishments without seeing a hand sanitizer station and people wearing face masks. As hand sanitizers and face masks have come into everyday use, some people have noticed that they are experiencing an adverse reaction to them. Is it just dry skin or an allergic reaction? Are the active ingredients in hand sanitizers really harmless? Should we be concerned about the long-term effects of the chemicals used in hand sanitizers on pregnant women or children? If your face is red or itchy, is it a reaction to your face mask?
What causes these sensitivities or allergic reactions?
Allergic reactions occur when your body misidentifies a harmless substance as a harmful invader and then stimulates an immune response to fight it off. When the invader is a harmful substance, that is a healthy, beneficial reaction.
When the invader is something harmless, like dust, pet dander, pollen, fragrances, or face mask, your immune system struggles to fight off something that is not really attacking the body. You end up with symptoms of being sick, like a stuffy or runny nose, itchy or swollen eyes, or a rash or hives on the skin, but without the effects of an infection as well. Most people have relatively mild allergic reactions. Very few people are unfortunate enough to be so allergic to a harmless substance as to trigger life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Can someone really be allergic to face masks?
The answer is yes. It is not common, but it does happen to some people. Your skin barrier helps protect you in many ways, but friction, rubbing, and sweat trapped underneath a mask can cause the skin barrier to break down. Whenever you get an impairment of the skin barrier, you can start to see irritation causing redness and flaking skin. The material of the face mask, the elastic ear loops, and the paper or fabric dyes used can all become allergens to some people. The most common allergens in face masks are formaldehyde, urea, quaterium-15, and fabric dyes used in manufacturing. Not everyone who is sensitive to face masks present with skin problems. Some develop runny noses and red, itchy, or watery eyes. And some people just feel so claustrophobic wearing a face mask that they experience shortness of breath or feel as if they can’t breathe.
Face mask allergies appear to be more prevalent with those who have an autoimmune disease, as they are already at increased risk to develop allergies and sensitivities.
Are nitrile or vinyl gloves as allergenic as latex gloves?
Not usually. However, even if you have never been allergic to latex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves, they can trigger an allergic skin reaction in some people who they wear them too often. Although developing a sensitivity to gloves is certainly not widespread, we see it occasionally now as wearing gloves had become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. As with face masks, if you have an autoimmune disease, you are at an increased risk to develop any allergies or sensitivities.
Is handwashing really better than an antiseptic chemical bath for our hands?
Washing hands with soap and warm water is the most effective method for reducing bacterial and viral counts on our hands. Viruses, including COVID-19, are encased in a lipid envelop—a layer of fat. Soap breaks that fat membrane apart and the virus dies and cannot infect you. Also, the mechanical action of scrubbing with soap for at least 20 seconds actually removes the virus as well as any other debris and bacteria from our skin. That’s why we should scrub between our fingers and under our nails since those areas are congregation points for hiding germs, dirt, and debris.
The second most effective method is alcohol-based hand sanitizer. In fact, every study has shown that alcohol-based hand sanitizers clearly destroy most bacteria and viruses on our hands. However, they do not remove dirt and debris, nor do they kill any germs or viruses that are in the dirt and debris left on our skin and under our nails.
What about people who have an adverse reaction to hand sanitizers?
While allergic reactions to face masks and gloves are certainly not widespread, sensitivities to hand sanitizers are becoming more common.
Generally, hand sanitizers can trigger two types of allergic or sensitivity reactions. One affects the eyes and sinuses usually caused by the fragrances and fumes of the chemicals used. And the other affects the skin itself.
The primary ingredients in hand sanitizers are ethyl or isopropyl alcohol, water, and sometimes an array of different chemicals, thickeners, softeners, and often fragrances to mask the odor of the chemicals. Unfortunately, frequent use of hand sanitizers can cause skin irritation or dry out the skin. If you have sensitive skin, the effects can be worse. Dry skin is usually caused by the alcohol or whatever antiseptic is used. And simply having dry skin is not considered an allergic reaction. It is caused by a lack of water content in the skin as the chemical antiseptic has dried it out. Hand moisturizers should temporarily take care of dry skin. Also, if you are prone to dry skin, you need to stay extra hydrated.
However, there is a skin condition called contact dermatitis. It can cause mild symptoms such as red, itchy skin, or hives. Or it can cause more severe symptoms such as eczema, cracked and scaly skin, or blisters with oozing and crusting.
Our skin consists of good bacteria and natural oils that are part of the protective system that keeps our skin supple, healthy, and impermeable to most intruders. When you strip away these good oils and good bacteria, they can no longer protect your skin.
Alcohol and other antiseptic chemicals remove the good bacteria and oils from our skin and that is not good. Any antiseptic-based hand sanitizer changes the microflora of the skin which disturbs the natural pH of the outer skin barrier. In other words, chemical antiseptics are indiscriminate—they don’t know the difference between harmful and beneficial germs and oils. That is why overuse of alcohol or antiseptic-based sanitizers leaves the skin vulnerable to allergens which can penetrate beneath the surface of the skin and trigger an autoimmune reaction. It is this cascade reaction that causes the allergic condition of red skin, itching, blisters, swelling, peeling, or cracking.
There are some non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers that use different chemical antiseptics. They are effective but studies have reported that some of those chemicals, such as triclosan, can affect fertility, fetal development, and asthma. Frequent use of them has been known to increase a person’s resistance to antibiotics. On top of that, those categories of chemicals weaken the human immune function. A weakened immune system makes people more susceptible to allergies. In other words, if you are going to use a chemical hand sanitizer, you are safer with an alcohol-based one when you cannot wash your hands properly.
A fragranced hand sanitizer often uses chemicals such as phthalates and parabens. They are endocrine disruptors that can also affect fertility, birth outcomes, and reproductive development. In other words, they mess with the normal functioning of our hormones. So, find a phthalate and paraben-free hand sanitizer.
What ingredients in hand sanitizer can cause an adverse reaction?
The following ingredients in many hand sanitizers are considered harmless but can trigger sensitivity in some people:
- Antiseptics, such as ethyl or isopropyl alcohol.
- Sporicides, such as hydrogen peroxide, meant to kill spores from molds and bacteria.
- Gelling agents and emollients, such as petrolatum and cetyl alcohol.
- Foaming agents used in some hand sanitizers.
- Perfumes and fragrances used to mask the scent of other chemicals in the sanitizer.
- All-natural hand sanitizers use various herbs and plant-based ingredients as the primary antiseptic in place of chemicals and to add fragrance. Highly sensitive people may react to those natural ingredients which can include Tea Tree Oil, Lavender, and Lemon Oil as well as Clove, Oregano, Cinnamon, and Thyme, to name a few.
How to protect your skin when you must use hand sanitizer
- Know what you are sensitive to. If you already have allergies or sensitivities to pollens or fragrances or some foods, you might want to make sure your hand sanitizer does not include those fragrances or plant ingredients.
- Try to avoid hand sanitizers that have multiple extra ingredients. The more ingredients in the sanitizer, the more chances you have that something will irritate your skin. Any sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, a gelling agent, and some water will be effective.
- Test your hand sanitizer in a small spot on the back of your hand or your wrist. Some people will not experience sensitivity reactions right away. Sensitivities usually develop over weeks of use.
- Try to use soap and water more often than you use hand sanitizer.
- Use a moisturizing lotion to help with dryness from the alcohol if that becomes a problem.
- Consider seeing a holistic allergist for painless allergy testing that does not involve needles nor drugs nor supplements nor avoidance.
Now you know why someone may be having issues with hand sanitizers, or perhaps problems from face masks or gloves. And you also have some recommendations on how to handle those conditions.
If you suffer from allergies, and you have been unsuccessful with other allergy treatments or are looking for something different, St. Louis Allergy Relief Center treats allergies holistically without the use of pain or pills. We specialize in holistic, natural allergy treatments using Advanced Allergy Therapeutics (AAT). We provide you with a detailed treatment plan after completing a comprehensive assessment to determine environmental stressors that may be triggering allergies or allergy-like symptoms. Visit our website https://stlouisallergyrelief.com/ to learn more or call us at 314-384-9304.
We also deliver community workshops as well as a free monthly informational workshop on the first Thursday of every month at 5:45 pm in our Chesterfield office. Our free monthly workshop provides the public with information on our unique approach to allergy treatments and includes an opportunity to meet with our patients for a question and answer session. If you are interested in attending one of our free monthly workshops, please call our office at 314-384-9304 to reserve your space. These workshops are currently on hold due to COVID-19 and will resume when it is safe to do so.